How to decide what to save and what to throw out after a power outage or flood.

Jillian Kramer
August 31, 2017

No one wants to think of themselves in the facing a life-altering crisis like Hurricane Harvey. But the fact remains that the United States' varying geography and geology make us susceptible to a variety natural disasters—earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes—and chances are fair you'll be faced with one during your lifetime. That's why, in the wake of this devastating hurricane, public health officials are issuing food safety warnings and offering tips on how to protect your dairy, meats, and non-perishables during flooding or other weather-related events. Here's what you need to know about keeping food safe to eat during a natural disaster:

Meat, poultry, and eggs

When it comes to your meat and poultry, toss 'em out once they have reached 40 degrees (or higher) for two hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. That means if your power goes out, you'll need to regularly check the temperatures of these items to ensure they can still be eaten. The same rules apply to eggs, the CDC notes. One way you can try to keep your perishable items fresh and safe is to move them to your freezer. Even with the power off, a half-full freezer will stay cold for 24 hours, while a full freezer should keep things cool for 48 hours. If you don't want to move your items to the freezer, be sure to pack dairy products, meat, fish, and eggs in a cooler with ice.

Whatever container you choose to keep your foods cool, open it as little as possible. The more you open the container, the more cool air you allow out, and the quicker your food will spoil. And even if a food registers at a safe temperature, you should not eat it if you detect an unusual odor, color, or texture on any of your foods.

Cans, bags, and boxes

Power outages can occur after a twister or hurricane hits—but special rules apply to food safety when it comes to living through flooding or a hurricane. In addition to the above rules, you'll need to eyeball all your food—including canned and bagged items. If seals are in tact and there are no punctures or openings on your cans—and they're not bulging—the food inside should still be safe to eat, according to the FDA. But bags and boxes that have been touched by flood waters must be thrown away, even if they look OK to the naked eye. That's because the bags could have microscopic tears that allow harmful bacteria or viruses into the food.

Jars and bottles

Any foods that have screw-caps, snap-lids, crimped caps—think glass bottles of soda or beer—twist caps, and flip tops should all be thrown out if they've come into contact with floodwater—even if they look okay—because they can not be disinfected, no matter how or how well you clean them.

Countertops and cooking surfaces

If your work surfaces, stoves, grills or griddles have been touched by floodwater, you'll need to clean them with a disinfectant before using them. The CDC recommends scrubbing surfaces with diluted bleach—after you've washed them with warm water and soap.